Empty stadiums. Athletes confined to “bubbles.” Truncated schedules. Sports marketers are adjusting to a new COVID-19 reality since the games have returned, and the cancellation of some conferences’ college football seasons has added another level of uncertainty.
With some conferences calling off their schedules and others sticking to the game plan, this year’s NCAA football season will require marketers to call some audibles of their own.
“They’ll have to be able to move at a moment’s notice,” says Chris Console, SVP of fan experience at BCW Sports. “More importantly, we as marketers, advertisers and PR experts have to be more resourceful than ever before effectively coming up with a game plan. We can no longer rely on saying, ‘This is the plan, and this is the way we will execute it.’”
The uncertainty around college football is a result of the piecemeal nature of how decisions are made about when and if games are canceled, because there is no central organization controlling the schedule in the NCAA’s Division I. Instead, 11 regional conferences, each of which has its own rules and reasoning, are making the calls.
On Tuesday, the Big Ten was the first of the “power five” Division I conferences to postpone its season. Later that day, the Pac-12 issued a similar decision. The other three power five leagues, the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, plan to play, with some adjustments.
Last Saturday, the Mid-American Conference was the first to cancel fall games, followed by the Mountain West Conference on Monday. The American Athletic and Sun Belt Conferences and Conference U.S.A. are planning to play.
Of independent schools, the Universities of Connecticut and Massachusetts and New Mexico State canceled their slates, while Notre Dame plans to play. Brigham Young University, Liberty University and Army have not announced their plans.
This unprecedented situation has left brands and marketers to adjust to the uncertainty because of the massive amount of money at stake. Should the entire Division I season be canceled, the biggest potential hit would come from lost ad revenue -- and lost opportunities to reach millions of fans.
A broad cancellation could cost ESPN alone $850 million, according to Yahoo Finance. That number does not include other cable channels or broadcasters such as Fox, or the other smaller sports broadcasters.
“Remember, many of these schools have their own TV networks, so how does the Big Ten network fill the void in the fall without football?,” asks MWWPR president Bret Werner.
In 2019, advertisers spent $1.6 billion on NCAA college football TV ads, mostly from large advertisers, according to research firm Kantar. Just five companies — AT&T, Allstate, Dr. Pepper, State Farm and Chick-fil-A — accounted for almost $200 million of that figure.
Yet universities are intensely local institutions spread throughout the country, Console notes. “There are many more teams in the South and the Midwest than in the NFL which has gravitated to major media markets,” he explained.
That means cancelling college football would affect more than just TV ad spending. “I think the biggest thing I see is that if and when this works itself out, it will have a major trickle-down effect that is going to be quite broad,” says Mary Scott, president of global integrated communications at United Entertainment Group, the sports and entertainment agency of DJE Holdings.
“Think about in one university town alone, who is impacted by the games not being held: the fans and the players, the coaches and the alumni,” she adds. “Then there’s everything that transpires in and around that game for the community. The hotels, food and travel, there’s a really big impact and broad reach. There are these ecosystems, if you will, around college sports that will be quite impacted.”
Switching ad dollars to the NFL is an alternative for big brands that need to connect with sports fans, though one sports-focused communications executive says it won’t be an easy transition.
“I see brands moving more into the NFL, either as official or non-official partners, as I think the league will fill the void on Saturdays,” says Werner. “For many regional players, they could move dollars into local endeavors that are happening. [But] many of the collegiate relationships are multi-year investments, so pivoting in mid-August won’t be the easiest thing.”
Other professional sports could also become attractive alternatives, Console says.
“The TV numbers themselves have done quite well,” he explains. “The traditional sports packages have had an influx of viewership. If you wanted to watch sports, there was baseball overseas in the Japanese leagues or there is international soccer. Right now, the NBA, NHL and MLS are going as is Major League Baseball...and potentially we have the NFL on the horizon.”
However, most sports fans would agree that there is a distinction between pro and college football, so moving money and resources to other leagues may not be ideal.
“You’ve got different factors, right?” Scott says. “There’s the nature of the game, amateur versus professional, and there is definitely a different vibe. There is a community and fandom built around those universities or conferences.”
As the coronavirus pandemic eliminated live events, other sports-related content, like documentaries, grew in popularity. Yet because the college football situation is so fluid, brands and broadcasters need to be prepared with content to fill a void, if it happens.
“Networks like ESPN were front-loading and pushing the documentaries like the ones on Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong, and the numbers they were pulling were tremendous,” Console explains. “But there needs to be promotions behind them, and we should be finding out ways to get brands involved.”
“Brands have to take a real look at, without games being played, what other opportunities are there to be part of conversation and part of the narrative with these schools and athletes?” Scott adds. “There is a lot of built-in IP with these schools and teams. The question is how will that play without games being played? Will fans still go out and buy the Ohio State special beer edition? We don't know yet.”
There’s another thing keeping sports marketers up at night: the chaos may extend well into next year. While some conferences are determining whether they would be able to play early in 2021, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said on the Big Ten Network that there is “no chance” college football will be played in the spring.
“You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year. When I first heard that, I said that. I don’t see that happening, when I hear that,” Meyer said in the interview. “The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons within a calendar year.”
However, Console says a spring college football season would look very different than the norm.
“I don’t think they will have a typical season. It will have to be some kind of reduced season,” he says. “The regular season usually wraps up at Thanksgiving, and we do not have enough months to get to a full season, though we could get to a modified season.”